Take Nadine Gordimer, white South African novelist who won the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yes, her books explore the possibility of racial co-existence in post-Apartheid South Africa. Yes, the lead-heavy burden of a white person’s guilt runs throughout her novels. Yet she was ‘not political enough,’ said her critics. Backtrack a few decades and the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ was deemed impossible by Senegalese theorist and then President, Léopold Senghor. In his seminal post-colonial writings, Senghor argued that in black Africa, “art is functional.” In the recent history of a continent where the struggle to assert an African identity was synonymous with rebellion, civil war and heinous loss of life, art has remained staunchly allegorical. After all, what stronger driving force towards creation than asking “why?”
Fast forward to present day Somerset House, housing Athi-Patra Ruga’s kaleidoscopic ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ until January 6th 2019. It’s the South African artist’s first major solo UK exhibition, but his list of art-weighty accolades includes shows at the South African pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale, Louis Vuitton Foundation and Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Ruga’s work is saturated with the search for identity in post-Apartheid South Africa – yet, at the at same time, he manages to sidestep the creative restraints which a strictly political agenda would impose. On the contrary, Ruga’s collection of richly detailed tapestries, ornate sculptures and film work strikes the perfect balance between an engaged response to world events and sumptuous visual feast.